Thursday, June 6, 2013

Never To Return

By Keith McDowell

At precious few moments in what passes for our existence as sentient beings, we experience the joy of completing an arduous task that has encompassed our entire attention for countless hours and endless months. I’ve had that pleasure over the past few days as two of my mammoth ebook projects have been uploaded without error and accepted for self-publication by Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Normally, such an event might not be cause for excess celebration were it not for the additional burdens imposed by KDP and the serious flaws and inconsistencies in their [expletive “nav.toc” deleted] KindleGen rendering software and the accompanying documentation – burdens that cost me an additional two months of extra work. I suppose I should take solace and be amused at the fact that major publishing houses are having the same experience, but then … is this progress?

I never expected to write a novel. I’m certain that Al Kenion, my honors English professor at Wake Forest University for four semesters, didn’t expect it either based on his red-lining of my often wacky weekly themes. Of course, nothing has changed. Fifty years later, I’m just as wacky as ever when it comes to content, but minus his red-lining – not to mention my atrocious use of syntax and punctuation.

So why write a novel? In this day and time, content comes and goes at the speed of the Internet – they don’t call them “browsers” for nothing – leaving little room for growth into a classic, except maybe for the occasional cult following such as that surrounding Game of Thrones. And one certainly is not going to get rich in the era of micro-payments coupled to uncontrolled pirating, although the 70% Kindle self-publishing contract is very appealing in the hope of “winning the lottery” by going viral. And it’s a free service!

For me, writing the novel Never To Return was all about turning the churn of genealogical prospecting and my curiosity about the lives and behavior of my ancestors into an instantiation – that’s a geek word meaning specific realization – of what they were really like based on my own life experiences with people, my own peccadilloes, and my own interpretation of the historical record of my ancestor’s existence. It was a challenge that I could not pass up, especially given the boredom of being a retired person.

And so Never To Return tells the story of the Stoner and Morgan families of Rowan County, North Carolina, beginning with the marriage of Milas P. Morgan to Camilla Stoner prior to the Civil War and the birth of their son, Adam, in the spring of 1861. The trials and tribulations of their extended families in the community of Morgan Township, a community formed mostly by German immigrants at the time of the Revolutionary War, plays out through both the mundane and the extraordinary interplay of people dealing with the vicissitudes of life in a time of war. It is a story of death in its many forms, childbirth, marriage, fornication and adultery, graft and corruption, leadership, incompetence, fear, cowardice, heroism, utter despair, and all the other manifestations of the human condition.

Ultimately, Never To Return is a story about people, the most interesting of all subjects. I had fun writing the novel. I hope you get a chance to read it. You can get a free “quick look” at the Kindle online store by clicking on the cover image and scrolling through parts of the ebook.

And for those of you who get hooked on the real-world characters in my novel – isn’t it fun to see an actual picture of the lecherous First Sergeant Daniel Basinger bedecked in his Civil War uniform – and are not fully sated by the fictional story, there is the companion ebook and massive tome entitled The Stoner Family of Rowan County that comes complete with every court record and land deed that you ever wanted to digest.  You can also peruse it for free at the Kindle online store.

Oh, and for those of you who are classics purists, Never To Return is not a spoof of Gone with the Wind, even though I do like to be wacky at times. I revere both Margaret Mitchell’s book and the movie, but they portray and reveal only the plantation aristocracy of the old South. The movie in particular is a period piece with great acting, but whose male characters often come across as pusillanimous nerds. Gone with the Wind does not even remotely describe the life of a yeoman farmer in Morgan Township and what the Civil War was about for them and their families. If you want to know that story, read Never To Return. I spent a great deal of time perusing modern history books about the period as well as reading every extant issue, most of which exist, of the weekly Salisbury newspaper, the Carolina Watchman, from 1857 through 1868. It was a rewarding experience. And for the curious, I chose the title Never To Return to emphasize the death of so many men in the Civil War and their failure to return home to their families and loved ones, not to comment on or spoof the loss of the plantation aristocracy.

I’m one of the lucky ones. The modern technological and information age has given to me the most wondrous gift of providing a free medium to express myself and to bring to fruition major projects that keep me mentally young while having fun. It certainly beats sitting in a rocking chair on the porch at the local retirement home. Isn’t innovation wonderful!

And don’t forget to buy a few of my ebooks at!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Please Pass The Mustard!

By Keith McDowell

It was a simple act. I inserted the plastic credit card with the magnetic strip purposely aligned on the top left into the card reader at my local Shell gas station pump and rapidly withdrew the card, certain that once again, I would be authorized after typing in my area code and punching credit. But alas, all I got was a message to see the attendant inside.

I tried again. Same message.

Not wishing to appear insanely stupid and knowing that my credit line was impeccable, I trudged inside muttering to myself about accidentally getting the small magnets on my clip-on sunglasses too close to the magnetic strip on my credit card. Scientists like me always have such a ready explanation for unexpected phenomena.

The busy attendant interrupted her processing of a line of paying customers, all of whom were giving me the evil eye, and informed me that I should change the speed at which I withdrew the card from the reader since that often was the problem. She was obviously processing me as a silly old man who had not joined the credit card generation.

Retreating sheepishly and somewhat embarrassed to the gas pump, I tried several more times while varying the speed of insertion and withdrawal. Same message each time. Frustrated beyond measure, I did the manly thing, got in my car, and drove off for a soothing meal at my local MacDonalds.

Like all great connoisseurs of burgerdom, I appreciate the fine distinctions between an old-fashioned ranch-style burger with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and pickle versus the synthetic Big Mac with its secret sauce. And, of course, there is the Angus burger with plenty of onion and lots of strong, spicy mustard. Sadly, Texas doesn’t have those wonderful green chili burgers found in New Mexico.

I choose the Angus burger meal and reached into my pocket to extract the misbehaving credit card when what to my wandering eye should appear but the logo on said card. Too my horror and chagrin, it wasn’t the expected overlapping red and orange circles on my MasterCard, but the blue logo of my Randal’s grocery card. I was using the wrong card! How could I have missed the obvious?

Like any typical husband, I wanted to blame my wife for shuffling my wallet full of plastic cards, but this time I was stuck with my own malfeasance. The MasterCard was located where I always keep the grocery card. So much for force of habit!

But let’s be clear about this! Exactly how many cards do I have? Let’s see. There are two credit cards, a debit card, two grocery cards – one for Colorado, three hotel chain cards, a restaurant club card, two airline cards, one international SOS card, a passport information card, a AAA auto card, a bank card, three business association cards, two health cards, several government ID cards including a driver’s license, a couple of retailer cards, an REI membership card, several partially used Washington Metro cards, a compliance HOTLINE card, and a VIP entry card. Did I miss one?

Even in retirement, I clearly need one of those Lifestyle Lifts compliments of the TV commercials featuring Debbie Boone. The sag under my chin and all those wrinkles around my eyes were clearly caused by dealing with too much plastic and the embarrassment of choosing the wrong card.

But do we really have to deal with all that plastic in the modern electronic-IT age? Actually, NO! Believe it or not, you can now replace your plastic cards with a cellphone and some wireless technology. At Verizon, it’s called the ISIS Mobile Wallet. You pay by synching your cellphone at checkout and clicking away. Hopefully, the bill is achieved through RFID tagging of the products you want to purchase. While not widely available, it’s clearly the future. So much for that fistful of plastic!

Even better, you really don’t need to leave the comfort of your home to shop … and I’m not talking about the standard web surfing experience. Real shoppers want the feel of being there and the tactile experience. Enter the 3D graphical user interface attached to a virtual reality headset complete with electronic gloves and in the future, a sniffer to provide the olfactory dimension. So much for a static 2D computer screen!

Just image going to your favorite mall anywhere in the world and entering the store of your choice. The smell and the atmosphere will be there including the ability to reach out, touch, and pick up anything of interest to you. Can I still squeeze the bread loaf to check for freshness? Merchants will go out of their way to insure a quality virtual experience, coupled with the ability to purchase their products with ease and have them arrive quickly on your doorstep. You don’t believe me? Such simulated 3D tours already exist on the Internet.

But what about my craving for a Big Mac or an Angus burger? Surely that will not be satisfied by a virtual world? I’ll still have to get into my car, purchase gas with my mobile wallet, and head to my local MacDonalds. Not so fast! The Star Trek Food Replicator is here … or kind of here.

Let’s refresh our memory on the production of “food” as a generic item. In the olden days, pioneers stored up on salt, pepper, flour, cornmeal, sugar, molasses, vinegar, fiber from the garden, protein from animals and beans, potatoes, and so forth. They used these primitive ingredients to prepare “food.” The modern food replicator will do – and does – the same thing. Starting with containers of the basic ingredients, the proper proportions are injected into a preparation vessel and microwave cooked as appropriate.

And out pops a Big Mac. Or, at least, it will “taste” like a Big Mac. With experience, some measure of “texture” and “smell” will also be achieved. To future generations, it will become the “Big Mac” experience. If you don’t believe in multiple “Big Mac” experiences, order a Big Mac in South Korea and see what you get!

Yuk is all I have to say. I like my Big Mac and I want mustard on my Angus burger. And will I have to tip electronically the virtual waiter who responds to my voice command on the food replicator?

Just imagine the TV fare fifty years from now. You’ll be able to choose between the geek chef cooking competition for the best replicator recipe or a half-hour show entitled “Replicator Review” for those desiring haute replicator cuisine. Captain Kirk, what have you done to us?

So the next time you insert that plastic credit card into the gas pump, let’s hope you don’t get the message: “see attendant.” Who knows what will happen to you after that? Just don’t forget to ask for the mustard!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Clock Is Ticking

By Keith McDowell

Okay. What can I say? I took the plunge compliments of Dan Brown’s latest novel Inferno and enjoined a modern version of a medieval crusade during the past week. Like Brown’s iconic sleuth, Robert Langdon, who exposes evil while in disguise as a Harvard professor of symbolism, I raced from clue to clue using my Safari browser sans, of course, one of Langdon’s ever present and enigmatic female companions. My quest? To save myself from the ennui of retirement in the hope of enlightenment about the fate of humankind.

And you wondered what happened to my last week’s blog!

I won’t spoil the fun for those of you yet to experience the formulaic misadventures of Professor Langdon – that dude is one lucky stiff – but suffice it to say that his latest encounter with death and the powers that be involves the oldest and most sinister of all villains … ourselves!

Just in case you haven’t been paying attention to the latest news that isn’t new news, humankind is heading at an exponentially accelerating pace towards a mass extinction event that will make the Black Death or plague of the Middle Ages seem tame by comparison. At least, that’s what the bearded fellow wearing a tutu with  “The End is Near!” placard about his neck likes to tell me as I walk past him during my morning constitutional.

Is all of this talk of doomsday mere hyperbole set to capture our attention for someone’s fifteen minutes of fame? Or is it another conspiracy theory hatched by those who would keep us distracted from matters that really count? And exactly what is the nature of the latest incarnation of our impending doom?

I nervously began my quest for the truth by carefully typing the word “transhumanism” into a Google search form and awaiting a return response, certain that my computer was about to crash. To my surprise, I only got Wikipedia instead of the government hacking into my computer while causing the screen to flash in brilliant red letters, ACCESS DENIED! That seems to only happen at NCIS.

But wait! What about the blue symbol that popped up on the Wiki page? Surely “h+” must mean something! Are THEY trying to tell me that the hydrogen ion is the source of our future destruction? Nope. Wrong interpretation of the symbol.

Transhumanism has been with us for a long time and takes many forms. Quoting from Wikipedia, it “is an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” Now that’s a mouthful to ingest in one gulp! And believe me, you’ll need lots of time to fully digest the transhumanist primer at Wikipedia.

For many, transhumanism is an alarm bell sounding out the demise of the human condition as we’ve always known it. For others, it signals the coming transformation of humankind into a new “posthuman” or “human plus” (the meaning of the h+ symbol) era. But for our quest, it represents the very existence of humankind versus our ability to destroy ourselves through an exploding global population and the consequences that result therefrom such as global warming and the accelerating depletion of our natural resources.

The following population chart reveals our fate:

Folks, by any stretch of the imagination, such growth is not sustainable and humankind is now exponentially approaching the tipping point, or perhaps better said, the breaking point. Will we destroy ourselves through the normal processes of war or a pandemic, or will we accidentally invent our own poison? Or will the posthuman transformation occur first thereby saving posthumanity? And what form might posthumanity take?

I personally like to divide “posthumanity” into three classes:
  • Super-humans
  • The Borg
  • Cylons

Super-humans are those beings produced by directed evolution through genetic and chemical manipulation. They will be stronger, more intelligent, disease resistant, and have a host of other positive attributes – although unintended consequences will also emerge. To the surprise of most people, we’ve long since begun this transformation by popping pills into our mouth on a daily basis and by dumping the excess into our natural environment. But in the end, super-humans will still be a biological construct, trapped in an inherently “wet-ware” machine and directed evolution takes a long, long time to occur.

We can fix the “wet-ware” condition by becoming “The Borg” from Star Trek.  In this version of the posthuman, we integrate “wet-ware” with software and hardware. Again, this transformation is already occurring at an accelerating pace, but there is a proverbial science fiction fly in the soup. The “sentient being” at the core of the Borg being is still basically residing in a “wet-ware” brain, an inherently slow and cumbersome construct for which the symbol for the hydrogen ion seems appropriate.

But our quest isn’t over! As the electric power grid once again flickers into a brownout condition due to the Texas heat and over consumption by too many air conditioners, I hastily scroll my Magic Mouse to find the answer. It’s the Cylons!

Cylons à la Battlestar Gallactica are self-aware, sentient computers housed in an autonomous robotic body that they control. They are the next step up the evolutionary ladder. Once they emerge – and I’m certain that they will before the Twenty-first century is over, they will exponentially blow past normal humans, super-humans, or the Borg. They are our future!

Will cylons arrive on the scene before the social and destructive meltdown from overpopulation? Being infinitely and rapidly adaptable, they will likely survive almost any condition thrown at them by Mother Nature or the stupidity of humankind. And therein lies the hidden truth not revealed in Brown’s Inferno. It won’t be humans who emerge from Dante’s Hell, even if we curb the growth of the global population.

And so as darkness descends on the era of humankind, we reach the end of our quest and stare into the red eye of a cylon as it pulsates back and forth while hearing the final benediction from the infamous mechanical voice: “By your leave!”